Feeding the multitude, Courtney and Nicole Mallery are part of a collective of Colorado food justice activists who work towards food security.
Food connects the most disparate people at the most unexpected times. Courtney and Nicole Mallery, owners of Freedom Acres Ranch had set up food pantries in the Denver Metro, but it was the global shut down that tested their commitment. How they showed up has led to a number of activists standing with them in a contentious battle to secure their land in the predominantly white town of Yoder, Colorado. One of their ardent supporters is Pam Jiner.
A 40-year veteran in equity advocacy in Denver, Jiner is a stalwart in Colorado for her decades of work. Founder of Montbello Walks, the organization initially centered health amongst seniors in the Montbello neighborhood through activities encouraging movement, regular strolls and food-centered events. As the initiative grew, it broadened to serve younger populations. One way this is done is by providing spaces for youth to get exercise.
Through Jiner’s organization, they address issues impacting health such as food security, creating a walking and biking infrastructure, as well as ensuring equity in the area’s park systems. Jiner’s other project, GirlTrek, focuses on healing “intergenerational trauma, fight[ing] systemic racism and transform[ing]” Black lives by improving Black women’s physical, emotional and mental health through movement-based initiatives.
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Like many organizations, Jiner’s felt strained during the global pandemic, which at one point resulted in mandated restricted movement for citizens. In the progressive, blue-city of Denver, it also illuminated long-standing food insecurity issues in urban neighborhoods of color.
Back in 2014, the only grocery store in Montbello shuttered. Ultimately, opening up a chasm in an already apparent food desert. With the district housing about 36,000 people, the next market was 8 miles away. Thus, creating what Local 9 News described as the “starkest” food desert in the city.
Those without cars in Montbello relied on car sharing apps, or public transportation. However, to get to the other side of town was a few hours on two buses, according to Westword. Others opted to shop at Walmart, the Dollar Store or a convenient market such as 7-Eleven. When the COVID-19 paused America, accessing fresh food became even more of a problem.
“The pandemic was hard on everybody,” recalled Jiner. “Food was limited . . . [and] the government was providing boxes of pre-packed boxes of assortments.” Yet, they often were not enough for families and seniors with limited money and transportation, voiced the highly-respected advocate.
When food justice and community organizations began to fill a dire need in sections like Montbello, food shares were both timely and essential to community members.
“Food should be looked at as a human right, but the purposeful lack of grocery stores with fresh food in Black neighborhoods is what I call food apartheid,” wrote Cassandra Loftlin, a Georgia-based chef and farmer who writes a column called, Fcuk the Food System.
As communities of color felt the impact of the pandemic, the food apartheid in Montbello showed how economic disparities made accessing healthy food even harder. Regardless of the challenges, many people confronted the rising issues of accessing nutritious produce, meat, milk and eggs. Jiner, along with Kaizen Food Rescue founder, Thai Nguyen, said the Mallerys volunteered when food systems failed. In 2020, they faithfully participated in 18 food-share events led by Kaizen Food Rescue. The distribution events were collaborations made up of multiple organizations, including Montbello Walks.
While the Mallerys center much of their work around Black Coloradoans, Jiner observed that they were “humanitarians to all walks of life.” Evidenced in working with Kaizen Food Rescue, an immigrant organization, their volunteering was one of several philanthropic services they performed regularly. “They are just the nicest couple you ever want to meet,” Jiner commended.
Jiner met the Mallerys in 2019 when they were still settling into Colorado. At that time, they lived in the Denver metro area. In a chance encounter, Jiner and the Mallerys discovered they worked toward healthier communities through food. Even when they moved to Yoder, Courtney and Nicole remained tied to the visible African American population in Denver. It is through this commitment that they continuously fellowshipped with Jiner. So dedicated was Courtney, Jiner said that he also cooked some of the food he provided at distribution functions. While much of the funding that flowed during the pandemic has “dried up” according to Nguyen, she and Jiner said they have purchased food from the Mallerys, as well as taken their donations to fuel a complicated food ecosystem in the state.
Ultimately, the core of work for the Mallerys is in stewarding the land. Jiner emphasized how much Courtney immersed himself into farming and ranching like it was a divine calling. “When you think of him you think of fresh air, a relationship with the earth and with animals,” she described. “He loves the land [so much], he walks around [it] as if he was still in Texas.”
In spite of the Mallerys’ acts of generosity, they are caught in a web of legal cases and political bouts between El Paso County Sheriff’s department (EPSO) and some Yoder residents. The Mallerys allege that they have been repeatedly harassed and mistreated by local law enforcement, a few neighbors, and townspeople since they purchased their 1,000-acre ranch in 2020. At the core of their allegations is what they believe to be racism, as they are the only Black ranchers for miles.
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El Paso County Sheriff’s office has denied their allegations. In an attempt to tell their side, the law enforcement agency held a press conference and released a 129-page collection of documents around several calls and current legal cases concerning the Mallerys’. The released documents are a few examples from the 170 calls to EPSO involving the Black ranchers since 2021. Yet and still, the sheriff’s office, under the leadership of Joseph Roybal, maintains that they “thoroughly investigated” all calls and complaints.
The Mallerys see otherwise, and are now being supported by a high-profile civil rights organization with a long history in social justice and equity. “Our stronghold is helping them provide the criminal defense and protecting their civil liberties and civil rights . . . to make sure they’re heard,” Portia Prescott told Ark Republic.
Prescott is the president of the Rocky Mountain NAACP and a third-generation Black Coloradoan who said she “came up against a brick wall in trying to get to the sheriffs” to talk about the Mallerys. The broken communication led to her contacting Gov. Jarod Polis, along with a number of senators.
“For cops to come out to their property 170 times, by now they should know what cookies they like,” expressed Prescott, who comes from migrants who resettled in Colorado to get away from the gross inequities they experienced in Oklahoma and Alabama. According to her, the Mallerys’ allegations show that there are still parts of Colorado that hold onto a segregationist past.
“Most [Blacks farmed] in the northern part of the state . . . that is closer to Denver,” explained Prescott to Ark Republic. “They’re in the southern side of the state where there is a KKK stronghold, where [Yoder] is a sundown town . . . and the law enforcement is still kind of operating a lot like it is the 1950s instead of 2023.”
The Mallerys are one of the few Blacks in that region of El Paso County, and the only all-Black farmland owners in Yoder. “Colorado is such a beautiful state, but it’s incidents like these that show there is so much more work to do,” Prescott said.
Throughout the gruesome and tiring discord, the Mallerys must maintain their ranch. At a “Farm in Peace Live in Peace” rally they led on February 17, Nicole said her husband still gets up early to tend to his animals. As a veterinarian technician, Courtney loves animals as much as he treasures the moments he walks his vast acreage—even though it comes at a high price. For him, he decided to challenge what he described to Ark Republic as being pushed off of land that he and his wife worked hard to acquire. The stakes to ownership increased after he was arrested on February 6 for a felony warrant issued by EPSO. He claims the charges are bogus and admits that the ordeal is frustrating. Nonetheless, Courtney is determined to carve out a path for “Black farmers [after him who] don’t have to be put through this anymore.”
Gradually, others have visited to volunteer on Freedom Acres Ranch—from feeding animals to cleaning up wayward tumbleweed, to even providing security. The help is coming from supportive residents who want to show the progressive representation in the state, to groups of social justice activists incensed by what they see as racism in rural America. While the intersections can be odd and unexpected, they are happening at a time when a post-George Floyd racial reckoning is being tested. All the while, those following the case are watching to see how the Mallerys will be treated in the courts and in Yoder because it is an example of the generations of roadblocks experienced by Black farmers in the U.S. that have gone neglected.
This is part of the series “Get Out” which initially ran as a two-story narration about Black ranchers, Courtney and Nicole Mallery’s experiences in a predominantly white town in El Paso County, Colorado.
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